The rookie police officer who was gunned down while working one of the toughest districts in New Jersey's second-largest city over the weekend was remembered as a courageous, considerate and hard-working young man at a funeral service Friday.
Thousands of fellow officers lined the streets as 23-year-old Melvin Santiago's casket was carried from a funeral home to St. Aloysius Church on West Side Avenue in Jersey City, where hundreds of loved ones and colleagues gathered to pay their respects to the fallen officer.
Santiago was shot and killed Sunday outside a 24-hour pharmacy by a suspect who told a witness to watch the evening news because he was "going to be famous." He had been responding to a call of an armed robbery; his assailant was shot and killed by other officers.
"The bullet that struck his head also struck my heart," said Santiago's uncle, Frank DeFazio, who recently retired from the force.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop called Santiago hard-working, conscientious and good. He said the young man was "everything you'd want in a police officer," one who was committed to protecting the vulnerable while maintaining order, and one who wanted to work on the front lines safeguarding the crime-ridden streets on which he grew up.
"Melvin really represented the best of that thin blue line which protects and defends civilized society from the indiscriminate violence which human beings are capable of," Fulop said. "Melvin understood that serving as a police officer is dangerous, but he also knew that it was the highest calling of service possible."
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Santiago was remembered this week as a dedicated, diligent member of the force, and was posthumously promoted to the rank of detective. He had been on the job for less than a year when he was killed, and had requested to work the beat on the west side of the city. His family said being a police officer was his lifelong dream.
Hundreds of officers from around the region paid their respects at a wake Thursday, along with Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Jim McGreevey, U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. President Obama expressed his condolences in a letter to Santiago’s parents, which Fulop read at the wake and later posted on his Facebook page.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of your son, Melvin,” Obama said in the letter. “Please accept my heartfelt sympathies as you mourn his loss and reflect on his life.”
Also on Friday, thousands of people around the country are expected to pay their respects by leaving their porch lights on all night. The memorial is being coordinated by the Heroes Memorial Fund.
Authorities say the man who shot Santiago had grabbed a security guard's gun and waited for police to arrive before opening fire. The man was killed by other officers.